Throughout history there has been a misconception concerning the true nature and influence of power. Many of us recognize correctly that power comes from strength, but where we fail to capture it is in the recognition of its ultimate use. To most of us, power — especially within the context of occupation — is determined by one’s ability to inflict violence unilaterally and with impunity. However, this is wrong. Power, in its ultimate and perhaps most abusive form, is the ability to pardon. Anyone can kill but only the king can pardon — the acceptance of which by the pardoned is the recognition of the king and his power.
I was reminded of this fact while sitting at a checkpoint for four hours outside of Tulkarm on my way back to Ramallah. It was hot and we chose to turn off the air conditioner, and eventually the car itself, in order to conserve gasoline. Hours pass like agonizingly elongated days in the heat and the wait was exacerbated further by the knowledge that these checkpoints do very little for anyone’s security. We would not after all be traveling to Israel, rather from one town in the West Bank to another. Moreover, the soldiers manning the checkpoints did not appear to be looking for “terrorists,” only laughing and playing around — stopping every ten minutes to allow a single car to approach, assume a grim posture, aim their guns at chests and then demand to see identification before deciding arbitrarily whether you are free to pass.
I observed this for quite some time as I left the car for “fresh” air and wandered up the long line of automobiles until the checkpoint was visible. As I got nearer, a soldier approached me on foot yelling in Hebrew and pointing over my head to the long line of cars, obviously telling me to go back where I had come from. As he got close enough to see that my eyes were green and that the passport in my hand was American, he switched to a crude English “don’t come closer” before marching back to the line of cars to bark orders at the people waiting in the heat.
Both the soldier and I knew that he could not exert power over me without good reason, which I had not provided. This seemed to terribly perturb him, so much so that he vehemently ordered the first shared taxi full of people to turn around for no apparent reason. I watched as the people inside pleaded to be allowed to continue through the checkpoint. After a substantial delay fraught with anxiety, they had so nearly reached the obstacle that they have become so deeply dependent on, which once passed, would permit them to perform those simple activities we often take for granted such as the freedom to move about their land, to visit family, go to work or any of the countless reasons one gets into a car. Their pleas fell on angry, deaf ears as the soldier brandished his weapon and pointed first to his badge and then to the Israeli flag draped along a nearby roadblock before slapping the quarter panel of the truck in an obvious gesture of “get the hell out of here or something worse will happen.” The truck did so, and as I watched the sad faces of the passengers turning around to go back from whence they came, I felt responsible.
After all, it was me who had angered the young soldier. It was his inability to humiliate me, abuse me or exert power over me that sent him in a rage toward the first innocent victims he could find. So I walked back to my car, climbed in with my Palestinian colleagues/peace activists and waited the final grueling hour before being beckoned to the checkpoint, replaying the incident over and over in my mind.
When we arrived, sweat saturated our clothes, ruined our moods, and had long since killed any kind of conversation. The first soldier told us to stop, looked into the window and asked the driver, my colleague, “how are you?” in English. I had to bite my tongue in anger. How do you think we are? We have sat here for hours chewing up precious time and resources, missed a meeting in Ramallah about participative democracy in which my colleagues and our organization were featured, and now had to face the long, cavernous road back to Ramallah without the assistance of sunlight and the risk of being shot at by settlers who did not appreciate our white Palestinian license plates!
My colleague, a well-educated professional and long-time peace activist, managed to contain himself. “We are fine,” he answered back politely. “How are you?” This response pleased the soldier who saw no reason to answer back before waving us through. No ID check and no searched car; just a question, the tone and/or the answer to which could change the course of the entire rest our evening. We drove on quietly back to Ramallah rehearsing in our heads all of the answers we had wanted to spew at the guards but did not, knowing that it would have meant the expense of a hotel room in Tulkarm that evening, or worse, the confiscation of IDs or even the imprisonment of my Palestinian friends.
We had allowed the ultimate form of power to be exercised over us. We had accepted the pardon and mercy of the “king” to save us and the cars behind from the wrath of the immature, well armed teenage soldiers who were asked not to defend their country, but to police another’s in the hot sun — and in doing so recognized his domination.
Joe DeVoir is a 26-year-old volunteer at the Palestinian Centre for Peace and Democracy in Ramallah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.